ABBOTT, Percy Phipps (1869–1940)
Senator for New South Wales, 1925–29 (Australian Country Party)

Percy Phipps Abbott was the first Country Party candidate from New South Wales to be elected to the Senate. He served only three and a half years as a senator, but his career as a soldier, political activist and elected representative spanned five decades. Grandson of a pioneer Tasmanian, Abbott was born on 14 May 1869, the son of John William Abbott, auctioneer, and Mary Ann, née Phipps. Percy was not related to the politically minded Abbott family of New South Wales, which included Senator Macartney Abbott.

Abbott was educated at The Hutchins School, Hobart. In 1888, he moved to Sydney and later passed the law matriculation examination for the University of Sydney. In 1894, he commenced practice as a solicitor in Glen Innes, New South Wales, apparently in the expectation that the town was about to receive a new rail service. Later he confessed that, while he had hurried to put out his shingle, he was still waiting for the railway. Nevertheless, he successfully established the firm of Abbott, Pardy & Co. Abbott was alderman on Glen Innes Council (1898–1904; 1906–14), serving as mayor from 1910 to 1913. At one time, he was president of the local Hospital Board.[1]

At the 1913 federal election, Abbott, endorsed by the Farmers’ and Settlers’ Association, was elected to the House of Representatives as the Liberal Member for New England. He would be absent from the House between May 1915 and June 1918 while on war service overseas. Abbott’s contribution to debate in the House before and after the war included support for rural industry and the New State Movement, and touched on such matters as the tobacco industry, tick fever, telephone services, soldiers’ conditions, chaff sacks, and tin marketing.

However, he was not a particularly active participant in parliamentary proceedings. He acknowledged that he had ‘not taken up much of the time of the Hansard reporters’, but crossed swords with the Labor Member for Gwydir, William Webster, when Webster criticised his poor attendance. Abbott retaliated by calling Webster the ‘Gwydir galah’. (Webster had more than made up for any silence on Abbott’s part by speaking for almost eleven hours in the House during a marathon stonewalling episode.)

Abbott’s long and distinguished military service had commenced in 1898 in the 4th New South Wales Infantry Regiment. In 1903, he joined the 5th Australian Light Horse (New England) and by 1913 was its commanding officer. After the outbreak of war, Abbott joined the AIF as a major. In March 1915, he was appointed lieutenant colonel of the 12th Light Horse and in June embarked from Sydney for Gallipoli where in September he took command of the 10th Light Horse. By October Abbott was sick, and invalided out to hospitals in Alexandria and London. In 1916, he was commander of an AIF training group in England. From October 1917 to February 1918, he served in France with the 63rd and the 30th battalions. In 1917, he was appointed CMG and later that year mentioned in dispatches. It appears that Abbott enjoyed some notoriety in England as an Australian officer who was also a member of the House of Representatives.

Again in poor health, Abbott returned to Australia in June 1918. His AIF appointment was terminated, and he entered the House of Representatives once more, where he ‘was given an enthusiastic reception by members of both parties’. In Glen Innes, he was presented with an illuminated address. He did not contest the December 1919 federal election, probably because he needed to restore both his health and his law practice, and declined a request by the Nationalist Party to reconsider his decision.[2]

Abbott became increasingly active in the New State Movement. He was president of the northern central executive from its inception in August 1920 and chaired New State conventions continuously until the 1930s, including the Northern New State Convention at Armidale in April 1921. In his somewhat lengthy evidence in 1923 before the royal commission on ‘a New State or New States’, he referred to an apparently controversial pamphlet, ‘Australia Subdivided’, produced in Glen Innes by the Examiner. In 1924, he was elected vice-president of the executive of the ‘All Australia New States Movement’ representing northern New South Wales. Later, Sir Earle Page described Abbott as ‘one of the founders of the Smaller States Movement’ and a pioneer and founder of the Country Party.

By all accounts, Abbott was a good ‘street orator’, attracting large crowds. In an unpublished manuscript, a political associate, C. L. A. Abbott (not related), describes, perhaps with some exaggeration, Percy’s successful intervention on his behalf at a campaign meeting in Tamworth:

Then Percy Abbott climbed on to the lorry and took his overcoat off in the approved style. He was a little above average height with an actor’s flexible, clean shaven face and slightly protruding eyes. He had a good robust voice that he used well and he was one of [the] best street speakers I ever heard. It was amazing. Within five minutes the outside fringe from the other meetings began to drift towards us, in ten they had doubled and, when Percy got firmly into his subject, a good part being me, there were a thousand people listening.[3]

At another meeting at Tamworth in November 1920, when he crowned the ‘Queen of the New State’, it was reported that he addressed 8000 people. ‘Having a good platform presence’, reported the New South Wales Magazine, ‘and an excellent speaking voice, the Colonel rose to the occasion, and every portion of the great crowd heard his words’. In May 1922, during rallies in Martin Place, Sydney, on behalf of the New States of Australia League, Abbott appears to have again drawn a large audience: ‘Before he had been speaking ten minutes the crowd had quadrupled, and by the time he had finished Martin Place was blocked to traffic’.

Later in 1922, Abbott led the Country Party team for New South Wales for the Senate election, but failed to gain a seat. In October 1923, his name was put forward by the Progressive Party, in opposition to the Nationalist candidate, Walter Massy-Greene, to fill the casual vacancy caused by the death of Senator Edward Millen; but Massy-Greene was chosen. At a joint sitting of the two Houses of the New South Wales Parliament on 20 November 1924, called to fill a casual vacancy caused by the death of Labor’s Senator McDougall, Abbott lost by twenty-six votes to the Labor nominee, J. M. Power. Following Power’s death, two months later, Abbott, now on something of a crusade to oppose casual vacancies being filled by those of the same party as the previous occupant, was again nominated by the Progressives, but was defeated by Labor’s W. A. Gibbs.

At the November 1925 general election, the Country Party and the Nationalists exchanged preferences, and Abbott, elected in fifth place, was chosen under the Senate Elections Act 1922 to fill a long casual vacancy. As a result, his term of service commenced from the date of the election, although as with Senator Allan McDougall, his parliamentary allowance did not commence until the casual vacancy had been certified by the Governor of New South Wales; in Abbott’s case on 12 December 1925.

Abbott described himself as a ‘Country Party-cum-Nationalist candidate’. He had campaigned with his usual vigour; on one occasion addressing the Women’s Country Party in Sydney. As with his first tenure in the Parliament, Abbott’s contributions to debate were meagre, involving mainly rural-oriented subjects such as the prickly pear pest, strikes, and timber duties. He claimed that the communists had ‘played hell’ with Australian industry, and opposed parliamentary approval of judicial appointments. He urged the return of income tax to the states arguing that the Commonwealth Government—which was ‘not a body of bushrangers, filibusters, or mountebanks’—would honour its financial obligations. Not infrequently, his speeches included references to the New State Movement. He was a member of the Empire Parliamentary Association.

At the 1928 election, Labor won a clean sweep of the Senate seats in New South Wales and Abbott was defeated. He had served on one committee, and been present for only fifty-one of the 167 days that the Senate met during his term, having been granted a total of five months leave between October 1927 and May 1928. During his time in the Senate, he had maintained his involvement with the New State Movement, which he promoted also in his capacity as a member of the royal commission on the Australian Constitution (1927–29).[4]

After his defeat, Abbott established a law practice in Tamworth. He had continued to command the New England Light Horse until 1921when he transferred to the reserve list. In the early days of World War II, he served as area commandant of Tamworth Volunteer Corps. He visited sick service personnel in local hospitals. On 2 September 1901, he had married at St Paul’s Church of England, West Tamworth, Elizabeth Matilda Ross, née King, a great-grand-daughter of Governor Philip Gidley King. Abbott died in Tamworth on 9 September 1940. He was buried in the Church of England portion of the Glen Innes Cemetery after a service in the church in which he had married. His wife, three sons, Douglas, Bruce and Percy, and a daughter, Enid, survived him.

Although his career encompassed the law, politics and the army, it appeared to some that his parliamentary service was merely an interruption in his long involvement with the military. At his funeral service in West Tamworth, sixty diggers formed a guard of honour. In its obituary, Reveille referred to the way in which his ‘guts’ and ‘good heart’ appealed to the troops: ‘They forgave him for having been a Senator and Member of the House of Representatives, and even for having been a colonel, and took him as a man in whom they found qualities that endeared him to Digger and civilian alike’.[5]

Denis Strangman

[1] SMH, 19 September 1940, p. 20; J. M Bennett, A History of Solicitors in New South Wales, Legal Books, Sydney, 1984, p. 269; Reveille (Sydney), vol. 14, 1 October 1940, p. 30; Northern Daily Leader (Tamworth), 10 September 1940, p. 5; The Beardies Heritage: A History of Glen Innes and District, Glen Innes Municipal Council, Glen Innes, 1972; New State Magazine (Tamworth), July 1921, pp. 9-10.

[2] Terry Hogan, ‘Abbott, Percy Phipps’, ADB, vol. 7;Personnel Dossier—Percy Phipps Abbott, B2455, NAA; Official History, 1914–18 War, Official Historian’s Biographical Cards, no. 43, AWM; CPD, 5 December 1918, pp. 8829–8831, 12 December 1913, p. 4272; SMH, 10 June 1918, p. 6, 11 June 1918, p. 6, 8 June 1918, p. 12, 8 August 1918, p. 7, 13 October 1919, p. 6, 23 October 1919, p. 7; Letter, Douglas Abbott to Denis Strangman, 11 January 1995.

[3] NSWPP, Report and evidence of the royal commission on a new state or new states, 1925, pp. 240–264, 273; Numerous newspaper references to Abbott’s involvement in the New State Movement include: SMH, 20 April 1921, p. 11, 21 April 1921, p. 10, 22 November 1921, p. 10, 3 May 1922, p. 11, 3 May 1927, p. 12;New State Magazine (Tamworth), July 1921, pp. 9-10, October 1921, p. 14, July 1922, p. 12; CPD, 20 November 1940, pp. 39–40; Ulrich Ellis, A History of the Australian Country Party, MUP, Parkville, Vic., 1963, pp. 26–27, 47, 152; Percy Phipps Abbott Papers, A224, University of New England Archives; Grant Harman, ‘New State Agitation in Northern New South Wales, 1920-1929’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. 63, June 1977, pp. 26-39; Hilda and C. L. A. Abbott Papers, MS 4744, NLA; New State Magazine (Tamworth), July 1922, p. 12; SMH, 5 December 1922, p. 10.

[4] J. R. Odgers, Australian Senate Practice, Government Printing Office, Canberra, 1953, p. 28; Senate, Journals, 13 January 1926; Senate Registry file, A8161, S.2, NAA; SMH, 14 October 1925, pp. 9, 16; CPD, 14 January 1926, pp. 46-47, 21 January 1926, p. 254, 5 March 1926, pp. 1378-1385, 21 March 1928, pp. 3952–3953, 23 June 1926, p. 3381, 18 March 1927, pp. 645-650, 24 March 1927, p. 1015; CPP. Report of the royal commission on the Constitution, 1929.

[5] Northern Daily Leader (Tamworth),10 September 1940, p. 5, 11 September 1940, p. 3; SMH, 14 September 1940, p. 20; Reveille (Sydney), vol. 14, 1 October 1940, p. 30.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 1, 1901–29, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, Vic., 2000, pp. 74-77.

ABBOTT, Percy Phipps (1869-1940)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, NSW, 1925–29

Member of the House of Representatives for New England, NSW, 1913–19

Senate Committee Service

Library Committee, 1926–29